By Fr. Rommel P. Olivar, OP (Contributor)

People observe social distancing as they line up in front of the historic Colegio de San Juan de Letran in Intramuros, Manila for the Mesa ni San Martin (PHOTO COURTESY of Fr. Rommel P. Olivar, OP)

The Mesa ni San Martin is the community pantry of the Colegio de San Juan de Letran-Manila. It is a continuation of the outreach program of Letran, the Letran Lay Dominicans, and the Justice, Peace and Care of Creation Commission (JPCC) of the Filipino Dominicans. Back in April and May 2020, the Colegio and the JPCC already had a feeding program for those unable to work due to the pandemic in Intramuros, and other communities within Metro Manila. This program was called Share a Meal, and lasted until May 2020. We also distributed face masks, face shields and PPEs to frontliners.

With the continuation of the quarantine, hunger became a problem for the street people within Intramuros, so we also supplemented the share a meal with free pan de sal and coffee distributed by our volunteers who ride around the Intramuros on a bike. We dubbed this program Pan de Sal ni San Martin, after the Dominican saint known as the patron of charitable giving.

When the strict Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) was imposed during Holy Week and then extended for one month, we had planned to distribute relief packs, but when our Rector, Fr. Clarence Victor Marquez, OP,  and the JPCC Promoter, Fr. Victor Calvo, Jr. OP, saw the Maginhawa Community Pantry, they thought that it would be a good idea to replicate it also here in Intramuros.

By coincidence, April 20 was the 369th foundation anniversary of the Convent of St. John Lateran, our Convent here in the Colegio. It was also Tuesday, the day of St. Martin de Porres here in Letran. And so we deemed the opening of a community pantry as the perfect way to celebrate our foundation and the day dedicated to St. Martin.

The Mesa ni San Martin has been operating since April 20, Mondays to Fridays, at 7 to 10 am. Early on, we thought it better for a more equitable distribution that our personnel will be the ones to place the donations in the bags given by the beneficiaries. It’s faster and allows us to control the quantity so that everyone can bring home something. The donations are basic commodities, e.g., rice, canned goods, vegetables, fruits, noodles. A good number also send cash donations which we use to buy supplies.

Since the day we announced the call for donations, the response has been heartwarming. The pantry never ran out of supplies.

A Dominican priest blesses the people before the opening of the Mesa ni San Martin (PHOTO COURTESY of Fr. Rommel P. Olivar, OP)

Most of the donors are Letranites: students, alumni, employees and their families. We also have a good number affiliated with other Dominican institutions, like the Lay Dominicans of the University of Santo Tomas and Sto. Domingo who donated. Fr. Calvo also has links with the NCAA. His friends there have been very generous donors.

The primary beneficiaries are the street people and the poor families of the five barangays of Intramuros, but there are quite a good number from outside, like those from Baseco compound, the street people in Lawton and along del Pan. All in all, about 300 people queue every morning. The pantry serves 350 persons a day. The food supplies we give out is enough food for a family of five for one day

Overall, the distribution has been very orderly. We coordinated with the IATF and the barangay officials. Every morning the barangay captain and other officials join us to ensure that health protocols are observed. We have spare masks and shields for those who don’t have one. Alcohol dispensers are placed at intervals, and there are painted marks where people can stand to ensure that social distancing is observed. And so that the crowds won’t be too large, we divided the beneficiaries in terms of days: those within Intramuros can come on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; those outside Intramuros on Thursdays and Fridays. Mondays both those outside and inside the walls can come. It is also good that the Intramuros Administration has its own community pantry in front of the Manila Cathedral so we in Letran are not overwhelmed by the number of people.

The Mesa operates Monday to Friday, 7 to 10 am, and will continue until May 5. Those interested to help are most welcome. They can drop their in-kind donations at the main gate of Letran. The guards are available to receive them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For those who would like to give monetary donations, they may send them through Metrobank: 2007200524590; Acct name: Colegio de San Juan de Letran, Inc., or BDO: Acct. Name: Colegio de San Juan de Letran; account number: 0045 0014 3710; or through GCash: 09561703743.

Editor’s Note:  The author is currently Vice President for Religious Affairs of the Colegio de San Juan de Letran – Manila